AIMS: To see if the compositions of the microbial communities in full scale enhanced biological phosphorus removal activated sludge systems were the same as those from laboratory scale sequencing batch reactors fed a synthetic sewage. METHODS: Biomass samples taken from nine full scale enhanced biological phosphate removal (EBPR) activated sludge plants in the eastern states of Australia were analysed for their populations of polyphosphate (polyP)-accumulating organisms (PAO) using semi-quantitative fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) in combination with DAPI (4'-6-diamidino-2-phenylindole) staining for polyP. RESULTS: Very few betaproteobacterial Rhodocyclus related organisms could be detected by FISH in most of the plants examined, and even where present, not all these cells even within a single cluster, stained positively for polyP with DAPI. In some plants in samples from aerobic reactors the Actinobacteria dominated populations containing polyP. CONCLUSIONS: The PAO populations in full-scale EBPR systems often differ to those seen in laboratory scale reactors fed artificial sewage, and Rhodocyclus related organisms, dominating these latter communities may not be as important in full-scale systems. Instead Actinobacteria may be the major PAO. SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPACT OF THE STUDY: These findings illustrate how little is still known about the microbial ecology of EBPR processes and that more emphasis should now be placed on analysis of full-scale plants if microbiological methods are to be applied to monitoring their performances.